So, I’m sure I am not the only one who has noticed the recent uptick in Ted Bundy related material. I’ve known of Ted Bundy for a while – just like I’ve known of Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Raider, David Berkowitz, Ed Gein, and John Wayne Gacy for a while (I studied criminal psychology in college). All of them are serial killers and all of them took the word “heinous” to a shockingly dangerous level. Yet – for some reason – it is Ted Bundy that has remained in the public eye despite the fact that he was executed over two decades ago. It is Ted Bundy that is having the upcoming Netflix special Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, as well as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron. It is Ted Bundy that people are still trying to “figure out”. Figure out what, exactly? Well, the answer to that says more about society than it does about Bundy.
“Handsome”, “good looking”, “charming”, and “charismatic” are all words you’re likely to hear if you watch a Ted Bundy documentary or read an article about him. Hell, I googled “what made Ted Bundy famous?” which gave me a search result for someone on Quora asking as the same question. From those seven (reasonably though out, might I add) answers, the word “handsome” is used in the first six and the last one refers to him as “charming”. From the time he was caught, all the way up to present day, Ted Bundy’s physical appearance has accompanied his crimes. It was almost as if you couldn’t separate the two. The more that you read, the more that you begin to see what it is that people cannot reconcile within themselves when it came to Bundy.
He didn’t appear as a serial killer was “supposed” to.
Think of all of this unfolding as if you were watching a movie. There is a beginning (women start disappearing and turning up dead), a middle part where the climax happens (the world is made aware that a serial killer is on the loose and the hunt begins), and the end (the serial killer is caught and a face is put to the crimes. Now, in Bundy’s case, he escaped prison twice and represented himself in court so there was a lot more to his story from a substance standpoint). The dilemma with Bundy came from feeling that his face was incongruous with his crimes. For the longest time, American cinema has centered around beauty for both its male and female stars – specifically when it comes to the roles that they play. Whenever I heard people talk about Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, or Elizabeth Taylor from their era, it is always about their beauty. As a matter of fact, I initially though Marilyn Monroe was a model due to the fact that no one I came across who spoke about her so much as mentioned her acting ability. In present day, you see the same thing with a lot of male actors. For example, there is no way that someone isn’t aware of the strategic casting of Jason Mamoa as Aquaman. This is big with superheroes, actually. Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downy Jr., and Chris Evans are all widely regarded as physically attractive and all of them play heroic, noble parts. That is the main component of this; playing the part.
Traditionally, the part of the “villain” is one that an actor would have to fit physically, but this time on the negative end of the spectrum. Our villains are people that standout like a sore thumb. They would typically have some type of physical deformity that makes them unappealing at first glance. This is for no other reason than that we attribute negative qualities to things that don’t look very pleasing to our eye. Movies even began using these assumptions as somewhat of a twist where the good looking character actually turns out to be the villain all long; or the stories in which we the viewer are made to sympathize with an unattractive main character – who, in most cases, is actually facing a lot of ridicule from the other characters around them. This has stayed consistent throughout America’s history with serial killers. Ed Gein is probably the prime example of this. His upbringing was so uniquely terrible it was the inspiration for Psycho’s Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massecre’s Leatherface, and Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. He had an overbearing and abusive mother who’s death proved to be the catalyst for his killings. Currently, I have yet to see an article or a documentary that referred to Gein in anyway that had to do with attractiveness. The conversation stays strictly on his crimes and there is seldom a shock surrounding his capacity for committing them.
So, why is Ed Gein an easier pill to swallow than Ted Bundy? What they both did was horrific yet one has way more trouble being “understood” than the other. One has an ever growing array of movies and documentaries dedicated to getting inside his mind while the other is just taken at face value for being the monster that he is? The answer that is the Halo Effect.
The Halo Effect
Also referred to as the “physical attractiveness stereotype” or the “what is beautiful is good” principle, the halo effect more or less seeps into our every day interactions. The halo effect is a form of cognitive bias which causes one part to make the whole seem more attractive or desirable. This concept can be applied to people, products, brands and companies. Physical attractiveness is a common factor in the halo effect, as someone who is perceived to be more attractive will be assumed to have other positive personality traits and abilities. For a more in depth exploration into the Halo Effect, click here. Some of those positive traits include being warm, friendly, socially competent, intelligent, and just overall enjoyable to be around more than those who one considers to be less attractive. “Those suffering from Good Looking People Bias think the handsome and pretty are more talented, more honest, and cleverer than not-so-good-looking people.”
How does this apply to Ted Bundy? Well, it is basically the explanation for a lot of the media’s obsession with him. The thing with Bundy is that he broke the mold of what society thought a serial killer was supposed to look like. Bundy himself (in the clip above) explains that people were fascinated with him because he was a “normal” person. He even goes so far as to say that people would never look at him and think he was the “type of person” to do something bad. If you listen to the trailer of the Netflix special, that same sentiment is echoed by two different women at the time of his trial. Back then, serial killers were never thought to be people you found attractive or charming – which made Bundy the last person anyone would suspect of being a serial killer. If I had to guess, that is because the general public assumed serial killers commited their heinous acts because of their difficulties in a social setting or with women. After all, the majority of the nation’s serial killers up to that point had deep seeded issues that came to light after they were caught. More than that, though – they looked the part. Going back to the movie metaphor, Jeffrey Dahmer looked like the type of character you would give a “socially awkward loner who struggles making connections with people” backstory in a script. That is the type of character audiences can feel is more prone to committing unspeakable acts of violence. Ted Bundy doesn’t fit that role when you look at him – at least not back then, he didn’t. A good looking guy was always the hero. They were assumed to have none of those troubles back then – which Bundy didn’t. He used his good looks and charm to put his victims at ease. The problem was the other troubles – like the compulsion to murder women for sexual gratification – was something the general public couldn’t imagine living inside someone who was good looking.
Hopefully, at some point, the documentaries and movies surrounding Ted Bundy’s story will cast some light on this issue. Every clip played where someone harps on the disbelief that someone good looking could be capable of wrongdoing only serves to reinforce the societal perception. In Bundy’s case, this only served to help him disarm his victims and evade capture for as long as he did. Part of the reason he wasn’t looked into at first is because he didn’t fit the mold of what a deranged killer was “supposed” to look like. That is where the lesson lies, not in questioning how a good looking guy becomes a killer.